Friday, June 26, 2009

Running Down the Wrong Track

Even though I haven't been writing about trains of late, I've followed with interest the plight of Tri-Rail, the Florida regional rail line running from West Palm Beach to Miami. The line, which carried four million passengers last year, is in a financial bind because the counties it serves - Palm Beach, Broward and Dade - and the state of Florida reduced operating aid.

Consequently, it raised fares 25 percent and threatened to severely cut back on service. That would cause even more trouble for Tri-Rail since it would have violated the agreement with Uncle Sam to fund the recently completed double-tracking of the railroad's mainline. Uncle Sam could demand our (U.S. taxpayers) money be paid back if the railroad, which faces the possibility of shutting down altogether in 2011, reduced service.

Today comes word from the South Florida Business Journal that the railroad found a way to avoid the service cuts. But is it worth the price? To keep all of its trains running, Tri-Rail will move $18 million from its capital budget to cover its operating expenses.

Hopefully, this will be a one-time solution for dealing with a crisis and by next year the railroad will have a dedicated source of state funding so it can manage its cash flow. Deferred maintenance is a dangerous route to follow. People forget what happened to Penn Central and the New York City subways in the 1970s. And with recent deadly crashes in Washington and Los Angeles we have tragic examples of what happens when operating agencies cut corners.

Meanwhile, I am happy that Tri-Rail will keep its trains running, even if the ride gets a litte bumpier.

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